Last month, the Appellate Division, Second Department, issued four decisions[1] in a series of hybrid proceedings challenging local laws in the Town of Riverhead (“Riverhead”). Plaintiff/Petitioner Calverton Manor, LLC (“Calverton Manor”), in connection with a site plan application, sought to annul several resolutions adopted by Defendant/Respondent Riverhead Town Board (“Town Board”). These resolutions: (1) established a new comprehensive plan; (2) implemented a new agricultural protection zoning district (“Agricultural District”); (3) implemented a new rural corridor district (“Rural District”); and (4) enacted a new transfer of development rights law (“TDR Law”). Each of the challenges was based upon the Town Board’s failure to comply with N.Y. General Municipal Law Section 239-m (“Section 239-m”), among other things. In addition, Calverton Manor argued that the “special facts exception” required Riverhead to apply the preceding zoning district laws to its application, rather than the new Agricultural District and Rural District laws.

In these cases, the Court held that some circumstances allow revisions to be made to proposed laws or actions referred to the county planning agency pursuant to Section 239-m even after the referral is made. As the Court analyzed Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenges to the various Town Board resolutions, its holdings illustrate the distinction between valid post-referral modifications and invalid modifications which violate Section 239-m and render the entire act void. Additionally, the Court analyzed the special facts exception in light of Riverhead’s treatment of Calverton Manor’s application.

Calverton Manor’s Site Plan Application versus a New Comprehensive Plan

Calverton Manor owns an undeveloped parcel of land (“Property”) in Riverhead and submitted a site plan application in 2001 to construct numerous commercial and residential buildings thereon (“Application”). For approximately two years, Calverton Manor worked with Riverhead on its Application to satisfy the applicable zoning laws in effect at the time. Riverhead, however, had been developing a new comprehensive plan since 1997. The new comprehensive plan sought to protect open space and farmland, while concentrating development into certain specified areas. Riverhead’s new comprehensive plan also proposed eliminating certain permitted uses on the Property that were crucial to the Application.

Calverton Manor submitted the last revised Application in September 2003. The Town Board adopted the new comprehensive plan on November 3, 2003. The new comprehensive plan derailed the Application and development of the Property. Calverton Manor brought its challenges in Suffolk County Supreme Court. Calverton Manor was largely unsuccessful and appealed; the Town Board cross-appealed concerning the special facts exemption.

Amendments Subsequent to a Section 239-m Referral: Embraced in the Original

With respect to Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenge to the Town Board’s resolutions enacting the comprehensive plan, the Agricultural District and the Rural District, the trial court denied the petition, dismissed the proceeding and declared theses local laws legal and valid.[2] Section 239-m, in many instances, requires a municipality to submit to the county planning agency a “full statement” of the proposed action. In pertinent part, the trial court found that the Town Board made the appropriate Section 239-m referrals. Calverton Manor appealed and the Second Department affirmed. The Court held that despite changes made to the comprehensive plan, Agricultural District and Rural District after the Town Board referred these local laws to the Suffolk County Planning Commission (“Commission”), the revisions were “embraced within the original referral” such that the Town Board did not fail to refer a full statement of its proposed action.

Calverton Manor also presented a Section 239-m challenge to Riverhead’s new TDR Law. Transfer development rights allow landowners whose development rights have been adversely affected or limited in one place to transfer these rights to another place and build in excess of certain limitations in that other, buildable place. The parcel from which rights are transferred is the “sending parcel” and the parcel to which rights are transferred is the “receiving parcel.” Riverhead’s new TDR Law designated the Property as a “sending parcel” so that development rights could only be transferred away from it, as opposed to towards it.

With respect to this challenge, the trial court also denied Calverton Manor’s Section 239-m challenge to the TDR Law based upon the same rationale. The Second Department, however, reversed the trial court, granted the motion for summary judgment and declared the TDR Law void for failure to comply with Section 239-m. The Town Board’s submission of the TDR Law to the Commission was effectively rejected because it was missing the complete text of the law. The Commission, upon receipt of the proposed law, advised the Town Board by letter that it would not review the TDR Law until it received a complete revised text of the amendment. And, nothing in the record contradicted the Commission’s position that it did not receive a complete text of the law. Therefore, the Court found that the Town Board failed to refer a “full statement” of the proposed TDR Law to the Commission prior to enacting the same in violation of Section 239-m.

The Town Board sought the same “embraced within the original” protection the Court applied to the other local laws. Specifically, the Town Board argued its referral of prior drafts of the TDR Law sufficed Section 239-m and obviated the need for the subsequent referral. The appeals court disagreed. A new referral is not required only if “the particulars of the [changes] were embraced within the original referral.” Unlike the changes made to the comprehensive plan, Agricultural District and Rural District, subsequent to their referrals, the amendments to the TDR Law were not embraced within the referred version.

The TDR Law ultimately passed by the Town Board, among other things, mapped the sending and receiving districts and specified the degree to which density limitations could be exceeded. The prior versions of the TDR Law reserved these details for future consideration. Highlighting the significance of the changes made to the TDR Law post-referral, the Town Board’s own resolution declared that the final TDR Law contained “significant modifications” from the prior versions. In addition, the Town Board even prepared a supplemental generic environmental impact statement over the course of several months to evaluate the changes in the final TDR Law. Accordingly, the Court held that the Town Board failed to comply with Section 239-m, the adoption of the resolution enacting the TDR Law was of no effect and the TDR Law is void and unenforceable.

Special Facts Exception Permits “Grandfathering” Site Plan Applications

In addition to its Section 239-m, Calverton Manor argued “special facts” required that the zoning district laws preceding the Agricultural District and Rural District apply to its Application. Ordinarily, courts apply the current zoning laws in effect when they render decisions. Under the special facts exception, however, courts may apply the law in effect at the time the application was made. This exception applies where the landowner “establishes entitlement as a matter of right to the underlying land use application [and] extensive delay indicative of bad faith….unjustifiable actions by municipal officials…or abuse of administrative procedures.”

The Town Board sought to dismiss this claim, but the trial court held triable issues of fact existed sufficient to permit the claim to proceed. The Town Board cross-appealed and the Second Department denied its appeal.[3] The Court found that triable issues of fact exist as to whether special facts warranted the application of the prior zoning laws to Calverton Manor’s Application.

The record contained inconsistencies as to whether Calverton Manor’s last revised Application was “complete” in September 2003. On the one hand, evidence in the record showed that Calverton Manor needed to make further revisions before the Application could be deemed completed under Riverhead’s rules. In this scenario, Calverton Manor is not entitled to the exception. On the other hand, evidence also showed that the Town Board determined the Application was “completed” upon submission in September 2003. This latter circumstance indicates the Town Board may have delayed processing the Application in bad faith until the new laws went into effect. Because triable issues of fact exist, summary judgment on this claim was inappropriate.

—ENDNOTES—

[1] Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 829 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 833 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 838 (2d Dept 2018); Calverton Manor, LLC v. Town of Riverhead, 160 AD3d 842 (2d Dept 2018).

[2] Although these are hybrid proceedings, for the purposes of simplicity, the petition/complaint will be referred to as the petition and the proceeding/action will be referred to as the proceeding.

[3] The Town Board cross-appealed “from so much of the order as did not search the record and award them summary judgment and, in effect, make a declaration in their favor” on Calverton Manor’s special facts exception claim. The Second Department “dismissed” the cross appeal based upon the premise that the Town Board was not entitled to make such an appeal because it was technically not aggrieved. The Court noted that a party is not aggrieved by an order which does not grant relief that the party did not request. Here, apparently, the Town Board did not ask the trial court to award summary judgment on the special exceptions claim. Therefore, it cannot be aggrieved by this aspect of the order and is not entitled to appeal it. Despite having “dismissed” the cross-appeal, the Second Department heard, analyzed and denied the Town Board’s arguments seeking summary judgment on the special facts exception.

It is not uncommon for municipal planning departments to require applicants who are seeking land use approvals involving multiple contiguous parcels to consolidate or merge the properties to form one single larger parcel. Consolidation or merger typically results in a new tax map number, a new single tax bill for the consolidated or merged lots, assurances to the municipality that the otherwise single unconsolidated or non-merged lots will not be individually sold off post land use approvals and that the proposed project which is subject to the land use approvals will be assessed for real property tax purposes as one single improved unit (versus partially improved and partially vacant land).

Consolidation or merger of single parcels into one larger parcel provides for certainty when it comes to ownership of the lands subject to the approvals and provides the municipal assessing unit with certainty as to the use of the lands while imposing a single tax class and assessed value to the overall project.  Consolidation or merger is most often required prior to issuance of a building permit or Certificate of Occupancy.  Consolidation can be set forth as a covenant or condition in a written and signed Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions, which is recorded against the property in the applicable County Clerk’s or County Registers Office.  Similar to any other covenant or restriction, failure to comply with the covenant or restriction to consolidate can result in revocation of the relevant land use approvals.

In a recent Second Department case involving a real property tax assessment dispute, failure by the property owner to consolidate or merge six individual parcels that form the boundaries of a shopping center gave rise to unequal tax assessments among the six parcels, resulting in the exact problem that municipalities try to avoid by requiring consolidation or merger.

In re Blauvelt Mini-Mall, Inc v. Town of Orangetown, as a condition of site plan approval granted in 1992, the Town required that six individually owned parcels be merged into one single parcel forming the boundaries of a proposed shopping center.  Despite the condition, no formal steps were ever taken to effectuate the merger.   The facts of the case do not indicate whether the merger requirement was reduced to a recorded Declaration of Covenants and Restriction with revocation language.

Over the years, although a formal merger was never accomplished, the Town assessed the shopping center as one real property taxable unit by undervaluing five of the parcels while overvaluing the sixth parcel.  This valuation strategy lead to the unequal tax assessments that consolidation or merger seeks to avoid.   What is interesting about this case from a land use perspective is the fact that despite the 1992 Town directive to consolidate or merge the lots, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court holding that directed the merger by stating that  “[n]one of the parties sought merger of the parcels or similar relief, merger of all the parcels at issue into one tax lot is not supported by the record, and merger of all the parcels could be potentially prejudicial to the petitioner.”

Hence, despite all outward appearances by the property owner to use the unconsolidated parcels as one consolidated improved shopping center parcel, failure to take the necessary steps to consolidate, such as transferring all six parcels into one deed, providing one overall property description or metes and bounds instead of six individual metes and bounds, and modifying the official tax maps to reflect one single parcel, the petitioner in this case could potentially benefit from the unequal tax assessments to the detriment of the municipality.  Likewise, even though the Town conditioned site plan approval on consolidation or merger of the lots, failure by the municipality to insure that consolidation actually occurred seems to have resulted in a waiver or estoppel against the municipality, which is not typically applicable to municipalities.

Author note: Although the facts of this case do not indicate the basis for under valuation of five parcels and over valuation of the sixth parcel, it would likely be reasonable that the five undervalued parcels are perhaps being assessed as vacant land containing only parking areas, or open space, while the sixth parcel houses the actual shopping center structure.  If this is the case, petitioner could easily argue that parcels one to five should receive a lower vacant land assessment, while only parcel six should receive a full commercial improved real property assessment.  Allowing this fact pattern to exist provides for uncertainty in tax assessments.

Local governments in New York may regulate land use within their borders directly through their zoning codes and indirectly by adopting a variety of other statutes and regulations. There are, however, limits to their power. Municipalities, of course, must not discriminate on the basis of religion in violation of the U.S. or New York State Constitutions or other applicable federal or state laws.

That message was delivered loud and clear in a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in a long-running court battle over a proposed rabbinical college in the Village of Pomona, in Rockland County.  In Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 07-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. Dec. 7, 2017), the Court, following a 10-day bench trial, ruled that the Village could not use zoning and other laws it adopted to thwart the construction of the rabbinical college and associated dormitory housing proposed in the community.  In an earlier proceeding to consider the parties’ motions for summary judgment and a punitive motion for sanctions against the Village for the spoliation of evidence, the Court granted portions of each party’s motion, including the sanctions motion that resulted in an award of attorneys’ fees and costs relating to the spoliation dispute.  See Congregation Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. v. Village of Pomona, No. 7-2007-CV-6304 (KMK)(S.D.N.Y. 2015).  For a more detailed discussion of the pre-trial motions, see Charlotte Biblow’s two-part blog post, How To Spend Over $1.5 Million (And Counting) of Taxpayer Funds Defending A Land Use Claim and Facebook Posts And Text Messages Result In Monetary And Other Sanctions Being Imposed Against A Municipality.

The case involved approximately 100 acres of land in Pomona purchased in 2004 by the Rabbinical College of Tartikov, Inc. Tartikov sought to build a “kollel” or rabbinical college on the property that would include housing for its students – all affiliated with the Orthodox Jewish community, including various sects of the Hasidic community – and the students’ families. According to Tartikov, the on-campus housing would permit students to study from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. and also to meet their religious obligations to their families.

Tartikov and future students and faculty (collectively, the “Plaintiffs”) commenced an action in 2007 to challenge portions of three laws that Pomona adopted: an “Accreditation Law,” which defined educational institutions and dormitories; a “Dormitory Law,” which limited the size of dormitories; and a “Wetlands Law,” which established wetlands protections in the Village (collectively, the “Challenged Laws”).  The Plaintiffs argued that the Challenged Laws effectively prevented the construction of Tartikov’s rabbinical college in the Village and were discriminatory and substantially burdened their religious exercise.  The Village claimed that the Challenged Laws had been passed for legitimate reasons and were intended to prevent the construction of a large number of housing units for students and their families that the Village contended would overburden its infrastructure and detract from its rural character.

The Court ruled that the Village passed the Challenged Laws “with a discriminatory purpose.”  Specifically, the Court opined that the Village enacted the Challenged Laws to prevent the spread of the Orthodox/Hasidic community within the Village, and, in certain respects, to specifically target Tartikov and the property it owned. The Court said that it based this conclusion “on the context in which the laws were adopted” and “the unsatisfactory and incredible reasons presented for their adoption.”  The Court noted that a number of Village officials had made statements indicative of their prejudice towards Tartikov and Orthodox/Hasidic Jews. The Court also pointed out that members of the community expressed animus towards Orthodox/Hasidic Jews and that the Village’s Board of Trustees “acted on that animus.”

While the Court invalidated the Challenged Laws as a violation of the Plaintiffs’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion and equal protection of the laws, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq., the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C.  3601 et seq., as well as their right to freedom of worship under the New York Constitution, local government officials and their counsel should be guided by the Court’s critical focus on the discriminatory motives behind the Village’s adoption of these laws. The evidence cited by the Court for its conclusions and its application of that evidence to constitutional and statutory standards highlights the official and non-official actions that government officials should avoid when faced with similar circumstances.

In Fichera, et al. v. New York State Dep’t of Envt’l Conserv., et al., decided last month, Petitioners commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to void actions taken and determinations made by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Sterling (“Sterling ZBA”) and to enjoin the advancement of a mine project (“Mine Project”). Below, the Supreme Court, County of Cayuga, denied the petition and granted various motions to dismiss. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, held that (1) the petition was timely and (2) the Supreme Court erred by dismissing the cause of action based upon a violation of  New York General Municipal Law section 239-m (“Section 239-m”) and by not granting the petition thereupon. The appeals court remitted the matter back to the Sterling ZBA.

As pertinent to the appeal, the Article 78 petition claimed that the Sterling ZBA violated Section 239-m when it granted the Mine Project owners’ original application for an area variance without referring the matter to the appropriate county planning agency or regional planning council. Therefore, petitioners argued, the Sterling ZBA’s action in granting the area variance application was deemed null and void. Petitioners further argued that the Sterling ZBA’s sua sponte decision to grant the Mine Project owners an amended area variance based upon its previous determination on the original application was also null and void.

In opposition to the petition, respondents argued that the challenge to the determination granting the initial area variance was time-barred because petitioners failed to commence their challenge within 30 days of the original determination, as required by New York Town Law section 267-c(1). In addition, respondents contended that the determination granting the subsequent amended area variance was made by the Sterling ZBA after it made the appropriate referrals required by Section 239-m.

The appeals court agreed with the petitioners and emphasized the jurisdictional importance of complying with Section 239-m in declaring the Sterling ZBA’s approvals null and void. In many instances, Section 239-m requires a municipal agency to refer an application to a county or regional planning board for its recommendation prior to the agency taking final action on an application for land use approval. The Sterling ZBA did not refer the initial application for an area variance to the Cayuga County Planning Board before taking final action with respect to that application. Failure to comply with Section 239-m is not a mere procedural irregularity; rather, it is a jurisdictional defect involving the validity of a legislative act. Accordingly, the Sterling ZBA’s failure to refer the initial application to the county planning board renders the approval null and void.

Moreover, the appeals court held that the Sterling ZBA’s determination in granting the subsequent amended area variance was also null and void. “Inasmuch as the determination granting an amended area variance was based on the initial, void determination, we further conclude that the [Sterling] ZBA’s approval of the amended area variance is likewise null and void.”

Notably, if the county or regional planning board recommends modifications or disapproves an application, then the referring body cannot act otherwise – except by a vote of majority plus one of all members. Here, the Sterling ZBA unanimously approved the grant of the amended area variance and the respondents argued that the unanimous approval of the amended area variance was sufficient to override any recommendation by Cayuga County Planning Board to disapprove or modify (had the Sterling ZBA referred in the first place). “[T]he subsequent vote cannot retroactively cure the jurisdictional defect in granting the original area variance upon which the [Sterling] ZBA relied in granting the amended area variance.”

Lastly, the appeals court found that the Article 78 petition was timely, despite having been brought well-after the Sterling ZBA’s determination respecting the initial area variance application. The filing of a jurisdictionally defective document does not commence the statute of limitations. Therefore, the statute of limitations never ran and the petition was timely.

The Appellate Division modified the Supreme Court’s judgment in conformance with its opinion (discussed above) and remitted the matter to the Sterling ZBA for a new determination on the area variance application.

Standing is a threshold issue in challenges to administrative decisions.  Prior blog posts have dealt with standing in cases involving challenges to local land use and zoning decisions.  If standing is not established, the party seeking to overturn the administrative decision will see its proceeding dismissed without any consideration of the merits.  Whether a party has standing is quite fact-sensitive but there are certain overarching principals that should be remembered.  Most notably, a petitioner must show in its pleadings that it suffered a harm that is different from the harm suffered by the general public, that the harm is within the zone of interest sought to be protected by the applicable statute, and that the alleged harm is not speculative.

Late last month, the Appellate Division, Third Department, issued two companion decisions that caught our “standing” attention. While the cases involve a challenge to a loophole in the Election Law for limited liability companies, referred to as the LLC Loophole, the matters were resolved on the basis of the lack standing of the petitioners.  In these cases, petitioners raised interesting arguments that they thought would support their standing to challenge an administrative decision, but the Court found them unpersuasive.  The Court’s evaluation of the standing claims may be helpful to those seeking to establish or to defeat standing in the land use and zoning matters.

The Facts     

According to the decisions,  Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524905) and Brennan Center For Justice v. NYS Board of Elections (Docket 524950), petitioners were the Brennan Center For Justice at NYU Law School (the “Brennan Center”), a self-described “not-for-profit, non-partisan public policy and law institute that focuses on issues of democracy and justice” and six individual petitioners who were current or former legislators or candidates for legislative office. Respondent, the New York State Board of Elections, (“Board of Elections”), was described in the decisions as “a bi-partisan agency governed by four appointed commissioners and vested with the statutory authority to issue instructions, rules and regulations pertaining to campaign financing practices, among other things.”

New York State’s Election Law contains provisions that limit campaign contributions for various types of donors.  When limited liability companies were authorized in New York in 1994, the Legislature did not amend the Election Law to address campaign limits for this type of entity. In 1996, the Board of Elections issued an opinion that treated limited liability companies as individuals for purposes of campaign contribution limits. This allowed limited liability companies to donate larger amounts to campaigns than corporations or partnerships could donate. While there were efforts legislatively to close the LLC Loophole, none were successful.

In April 2015, one of the commissioners of the Board of Elections sought to close the LLC Loophole by making a motion to direct the board’s counsel to rescind the 1996 opinion and provide guidance on limits that should apply to contributions by limited liability companies. The motion failed, whereupon the Petitioners sought review in a hybrid Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action (“Hybrid Proceeding”). The Supreme Court dismissed the Hybrid Proceeding, which the Appellate Division affirmed in one of the companion decisions.

In April 2016, one of the commissioners made a new motion seeking approval of a draft opinion that would rescind the 1996 opinion and replace it with an opinion that treated limited liability companies in the same manner as partnerships and corporations with respect to campaign contribution limits. This motion also failed. Petitioners commenced another Hybrid Proceeding seeking to invalidate what the Board of Elections did in April 2016 and to replace the 1996 opinion with the 2016 draft opinion. The Supreme Court dismissed the second action, and the Appellate Division affirmed in the second companion decision.

The Appellate Division Decisions

In both cases, the Appellate Division found that the individual petitioners lacked standing. The appellate court found that their claims of harm – that the LLC Loophole “hampers their electoral campaigns by placing them at a competitive disadvantage against opponents who receive large contributions,” “damages their ability to represent their constituents,” harms the voters by “limiting their choices among candidates and hiding the identity of donors,” and “would cause them to suffer disadvantages in future elections” did not confer standing. The court found all these claims to be neither different nor distinct from those of the public at large and were also conjectural.

Similarly, the appellate court found that the Brennan Center lacked standing. The Brennan Center claimed the LLC Loophole “harms its staff contributors and volunteers by limiting their candidate choices and unduly influencing their political representatives.” The appellate court found that this alleged harm was no different than the harm suffered by the general public and did not support standing. The appellate court also rejected the Brennan Center’s claim that it was injured by having to advocate for the closure of the LLC Loophole, which required it to expend resources. The majority also noted that petitioners could not establish standing by claiming that the LLC Loophole caused disparities in campaign contributions, wryly noting that the “[o]ur political system does not mandate equal funding for all candidates.”

The Appellate Division also found that the courts were not the appropriate place to fix the LLC Loophole. Rather, it “resolved around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches.”

Moral Of The Story

As to the applicability of these decisions to Land Use and Zoning – the bottom line is never forget “standing.”  It is a fundamental element that must be established by petitioners and a fundamental defense that should be considered and raised, if applicable, by respondents, in challenges to governmental actions. As noted in the decisions and in the introductory paragraphs, above, petitioners must show “that they have suffered an injury-in-fact and that the injury is within the zone of interest protected by the statute at issue.” Otherwise they will be found to lack standing and will be unable to challenge a determination on the merits.

In 2012, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) proposed sweeping changes to its State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) regulations. These proposed changes were not adopted. Rather, five years later, in February 2017, the NYSDEC issued proposed amendments to the SEQRA regulations and a draft generic environmental impact statement, (GEIS), in which it set forth its rationale and objectives for the proposed amendments. We wrote about this development in an April 3, 2017 blog post.

The NYSDEC did not enact the 2017 proposed regulations. Instead, more than one year later, on April 4, 2018, the NYSDEC released revised proposed amendments to the SEQRA regulations and a revised draft GEIS, in which it addressed approximately 250 comments it received in 2017. At the same time, the NYSDEC released proposed revisions to Part 1 of the Short Environmental Assessment (EAS) Form and to Parts 1 and 2 of the Full EAS Form. The 2018 revised proposed amendments made refinements to the existing regulations, in particular to Type II actions. A Type II action does not require SEQRA review. The NYSDEC is accepting comments through May 4, 2018 on these revised proposed amendments.

Here’s a brief summary of the 2018 revised proposed amendments to the SEQRA regulations.

The existing SEQRA regulations note that each agency can adopt its own list of Type II actions and is not bound by a list of Type II actions adopted by another agency. [6 NYCRR § 617.5(b)] The revised proposed amendment to that provision will add a clarifying sentence that explains that an action that is “identified as a Type II action in an agency’s procedures” does not require it to “be treated as a Type II action by any other involved agency not identifying it as a Type II action in its procedures.”

Other proposed changes will indicate that the following are not subject to SEQRA review.

  • “retrofit of an existing structure and its appurtenant areas to incorporate green infrastructure”
  • “installation of telecommunication cables in existing highway or utility rights of way utilizing trenchless burial or aerial placement on existing poles”
  • “installation of solar arrays where such installation involves 25 acres or less of physical alterations” on closed sanitary landfills, certain brownfield sites that have received certificates of completion (COCs), or certain inactive hazardous waste sites that have received full liability releases or COCs

Another change will indicate that the installation of solar arrays on an existing structure is not subject to SEQRA review if the structure is not listed on the Register of Historic Places, is not located in a listed historical district, or has not been determined by the Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to be eligible for such listings.

Another proposed change will indicate that the reuse of a residential or commercial structure, or of a mixed use residential/commercial structure, where the use is a permitted use or is permitted by special use permit and does not meet or exceed criteria contained in 6 NYCRR § 617.4, is not subject to SEQRA review. In addition, a recommendation of a county or regional planning board pursuant to General Municipal Law §§ 239-m or 239-n, an agency’s acquisition of or dedication of 25 acres or less as parkland, or the sale of real property by public auction, is not subject to SEQRA review. And, the construction and operation of an anaerobic digester, under certain conditions, will also be added to actions that are not subject to SEQRA review.

The revised proposed amendments also contain some refinements to the DEIS process. Of particular interest to Long Islanders is a proposed insert to 6 NYCRR § 617.9. The insert will apply to proposed actions that are in or involve resources of Nassau or Suffolk Counties. Such DEIS will have to include “measures to avoid or reduce an action’s environmental impacts and vulnerability from the effects of climate change such as sea level rise and flooding.”

One other proposed insert, to 6 NYCRR § 617.12, will be of concern to municipal agencies. That insert requires the lead agency to publish or cause to be published on a publicly available and free website the draft and final scopes and the draft and final environmental impact statements. These documents must remain on the website for at least one year after the later of (1) all permits having been issued, or (2) the action being funded or undertaken.

Stay tuned to see when, or if, the NYSDEC finally enacts the proposed changes to the SEQRA regulations.

On March 28, 2018, the Babylon Town Board adopted a moratorium on any new land use applications that seek to increase a parcel’s wastewater limits established by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services (“SCDHS”) by utilizing Pine Barrens Credits (“PBC”), which effectively transfer development rights from other parts of Suffolk County to properties within the Town of Babylon.  During the period of the moratorium, the Town plans to study the potential impacts to groundwater from allowing developers to increase development density by acquiring PBCs.

The concept of transferring development rights using PBCs derives from the Long Island Pine Barrens Maritime Reserve Act, which was adopted in 1993 for the purpose of protecting approximately 100,000 acres of the Long Island Pine Barrens located within the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.  As one method of land preservation, the Act authorizes the creation of a transfer of development rights (“TDR”) program, the specifics of which are set forth in the Central Pine Barrens Comprehensive Land Use Plan (“Plan”).  Under the TDR program, a PBC can be used to transfer the development potential from a parcel of property within the protected Pine Barrens Core Preservation Area (“Core”), or other environmentally-sensitive area identified in the Plan (a “sending parcel”), to a parcel in a designated area outside the Core (a “receiving parcel”).  Upon acceptance of the PBC, the sending parcel’s development rights are transferred to the receiving parcel, which may now be developed more intensely.  For a more detailed discussion of the Pine Barrens TDR program, see John Armentano’s blog post, Pine Barren Credits – There’s Money In Those Trees.

Historically, PBCs have been accepted by several towns and by the SCDHS to permit a new development project, or an expansion or change of use of an existing building, that will result in a wastewater discharge (effluent loading) that exceeds the SCDHS’s allowable sanitary flow rate for parcels that are served by an individual on-site sewerage system (i.e., not connected to a municipal sewer system).  The allowable flow rate for a particular parcel is set forth in Article 6 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code and is calculated based on the proposed use, and size of the building and the parcel on which it sits, as well as the hydrogeological (groundwater recharge) zone in which the parcel is located.  A PBC may be used to permit additional effluent loading up to a maximum of twice the allowable density.

Following the recent approval of two development projects in North Babylon and Deer Park, the Town has decided to take a closer look at the environmental consequences of allowing for increased density.  According to Richard Groh, the Town’s chief environmental analyst, the Town’s planning and environmental control departments have formed a working group to study the impacts to groundwater that will result from continuing the practice of accepting PBCs to increase development density.  Upon completion of the study, the group will submit its recommendations to the Town Board for consideration.

In the Matter of 278, LLC v. Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of East Hampton et al., dated March 21, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department upheld East Hampton Town Zoning Board of Appeal’s (“ZBA”) decision denying a natural resources special permit (“NRSP”) for two parallel 762 linear feet walls built without a permit by Ron Baron (hereinafter “Petitioner”) on his oceanfront property located at 278 Further Lane, East Hampton New York. Petitioner owns two additional, improved properties adjacent to 278 Further Lane, which is vacant. In September 2008, Petitioner built two parallel walls approximately four feet apart consisting of 762 linear feet along the southerly border of its property and continuing along a portion of the easterly border of 278 Further Lane. In response, in 2009 the Town of East Hampton issued citations alleging that the walls were constructed in violation of the Town Code because Petitioner failed to obtain an NRSP from the ZBA, a building permit and/or certificate of occupancy prior to constructing the walls. As part of a settlement agreement, Petitioner removed portions of the walls and submitted an application to the ZBA.

Petitioner made an application to the Chief Building Inspector in April 2010, questioning the limit of NRSP jurisdiction over the walls. By letter dated April 13, 2012, the Building Inspector determined that a “substantial portion of the wall was constructed in a location containing dune land/beach vegetation” and would require an NRSP prior to the issuance of a building permit. Petitioner appealed that determination to the ZBA, requested an NRSP and sought a variance for the accessory structures to remain on the property where there was no principal structure. The ZBA upheld the Building Inspector’s determination and found that an NRSP was required for the walls prior to the issuance of the Building Permit, denied Petitioner’s request for an NRSP, and held that since the NRSP was denied, the application for the variance for the accessory structure was rendered academic.

Petitioner commenced an Article 78 proceeding, seeking to annul the ZBA determination. The Supreme Court denied the petition and dismissed the proceeding, remanding the matter back to the ZBA for further proceedings to determine whether any variances were needed regarding the construction of the walls. Petitioner appealed; and the Appellate Division, Second Department held that the ZBA determination requiring an NRSP had a rational basis, was not arbitrary and capricious, and there was sufficient evidence in the record to support the determination. The Court stated, “petitioner failed to demonstrate that the retaining walls were erected in conformance with the conditions imposed (see Town Code §§255-4-40, 255-5-51).  Since the petitioner, which erected the retaining walls prior to obtaining any permits failed to request a lot inspection by the Town prior to construction and failed to sufficiently document preexisting conditions, the ZBA had to rely on expert testimony to ascertain the conditions in the area prior to construction Its decision to rely on the conclusions of its experts rather than the conflicting testimony of petitioner’s expert did not render its determination arbitrary, capricious, or lacking in a rational basis…” The Court overturned that portion of the Supreme Court decision, remitting the matter back to the ZBA.  The ZBA found the entire wall required an NRSP, confirming that the request for a variance for an accessory structure was academic.

Obtaining an NRSP in East Hampton Town is no small matter.   NRSP applications are regulated under four separate sections in the East Hampton Town Code:

  1. §255-1-11 “Purposes”- General Purposes for Zoning Code requires compliance with applicable sections A through M;
  2. §255-5-40 “General Standards”- General Standards for Special Permits requires compliance with sections A through M;
  3. §255-4-10 “Purposes of Article”- requires compliance with sections A through E, General Purposes for the Protection of Natural Resources; and
  4. §255-5-51 “Specific Standards”- requires compliance with sections A through K, Specific Standards and Safeguards for Natural Resources Special Permit.

Given the number of standards with which an applicant must comply to obtain this special permit, it is never surprising when an application for an NRSP is denied. It is even understandable that Petitioner constructed the walls (provided they were not greater than four feet) without permits, given an initial reading of Town Code §255-11-38 , Fences and Walls, which states, “the following regulations shall apply to all fences and walls in all districts unless otherwise indicated: A. Building permits. The erection, enlargement, alteration or removal of the following types of fences and walls shall require a building permit: (1) A fence or wall greater than four feet in height and located within the required front yard area of any lot; (2) A fence or wall over six feet in height, in any location; (3) Any fence or wall for which site plan approval is required.”  Considering the outcome of this case, however, Petitioner would have been better served making an application to the Town before constructing the walls.

 

Long Island’s ever-evolving agricultural industry won a major battle in the Appellate Division this month when the court overturned Supreme Court Justice Whelan’s decision, which invalidated two local laws of the Suffolk County Legislature.   See, Long Island Pine Barrens Society, Inc. v. Suffolk County Legislature, 2018 NY Slip Op. 01598 (March 14, 2018).

The Appellate Division voted 3-1 to overturn the decision, holding that 2010 and 2013 local law amendments to Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program allowing for new structures and uses on preserved farmland did not waste public property or violate the public trust doctrine.

Enacted in 1974 as one of the nation’s first, Suffolk County’s farmland preservation program is designed primarily to protect lands for agricultural production through the purchase of potential development rights (PDR).  Once the PDRs are sold, development or use of agricultural lands is restricted.

There have been several amendments to Suffolk County’s PDR law allowing, among other things, an expansion of the definitions of “agricultural production” and operation of a “farm stand“.   The 2010 and 2013 local law amendments expanded Suffolk’s farmland preservation program to allow certain structures, uses and special events on preserved farmland.

Plaintiff claimed that the 2010 and 2013 local laws illegally empowered the County to “give back” the previously purchased PDR rights to the landowner, therefore breaching the public trust doctrine.  The basic premise of plaintiff’s claims and the lower court’s decision was that these amendments, by permitting additional uses and development of “preserved” farmland, allowed an “alienation” of development rights by the County. See, Long  Island Pine Barrens Society, Inc. v. Suffolk County, 54 Misc3d 851 [2016].

In general terms, the purchase of development rights is seen by many as the complete sterilization of property so that nothing else can be done.  A simple example would be the sale of development rights to protect a wooded or environmentally sensitive land.  Once the rights are sold, the land should remain undeveloped in perpetuity.

Agricultural preservation through the  County’s PDR program is different since it contemplates active uses of “preserved” farmland for agricultural production such as commercial horse boarding, “U-Pick” operations, corn mazes, hay rides, wineries and alternate energy systems.  Farming, in this sense, is not static, so neither is the land that supports possible active uses.

As the Appellate Division pointed out, the County’s PDR program is consistent with New York’s Agriculture and Market’s Law Section 301  definition of “land used in agricultural production”.   Moreover, the legislative history and case law associated with New York’s Agriculture and Markets law supports the for-profit and active use of the agricultural property for farm operations.  This includes the right and flexibility of the owners to build new structures and try new uses on their land.

Here, the County’s amendments, upheld by the Second Department, recognize the farmer’s need to respond to changes in agriculture.  Long Island’s farmers require not just barns and equipment storage, but also other structures and uses that help to ensure Long Island’s long-term farming survival.  Given the implications here, plaintiffs may appeal this decision to the Court of Appeals.

With all the talk about a border wall between the United States and Mexico, we were amused to come across a proposed law that is pending in both the Assembly and Senate of the New York State Legislature to establish a Nassau County and Queens County border task force to review jurisdiction and boundary disputes. The Senate version (S4412) and the Assembly version (A6223) are identical.

The proposed law provides for a seven-member task force, with members being appointed by the governor on the recommendations of the temporary president of the senate, the speaker of the assembly, the minority leader of the senate, the minority leader of the assembly, the Nassau County executive, the Queens County borough president and the superintendent of the state police. The members of the task force will serve without compensation. The task force would have the power to conduct public hearings, issue subpoenas for witnesses and documents, and recommend legislation. The task force is supposed to issue a report of its findings and make recommendations by January 1, 2019.

You may be thinking – is this task force necessary? Haven’t heard of any border disputes between Queens and Nassau counties, other than the residents of Queens reminding anyone within hearing distance that they are part of New York City and not part of Long Island? Well, we found a few mentioned in news reports.

On December 20, 2010, CBS News reported on the “Snow Removal Border War Between Queens, Nassau.” Seems the residents of Floral Park were luxuriating in snow-plowed streets while across the street in Little Neck, merely 50 feet away, Queens residents were still snowed-in. Another article, from December 16, 2005 in the New York Times entitled “The Defining Line”, reported on the 15½ mile border between the two counties, from Little Neck Bay on the north shore, to Rockaway on the south shore. The article mentioned one homeowner whose house was located in both counties. He had a Douglaston Manor, Queens mailing address, got his mail from the Little Neck, Queens post office, but part of his home was located in Great Neck. He voted in Nassau and considered himself a Long Islander.

So next time you find yourself driving along the Cross Island Parkway near Belmont Race Track, watch for the roads signs that inform you that you are in Queens, then Nassau, and back in Queens in a matter of a few seconds. You have entered, and left, the Nassau – Queens border wars.